When last we left our look back at the career of Robert Altman in honour of his TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective – Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman, which continues to August 31st – we looked at the first half of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. One of the greatest influences on American and world cinema, Altman was responsible for such groundbreaking fare as M*A*S*H*, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, three of the greatest American films ever created.
Now that we move later into this master’s career, his track record becomes a bit spottier. After diving headlong into one of the biggest flops of the early 1980s with his musical adaptation of Popeye (not included as a part of this retrospective, but still a valid work that features the late Robin Williams’ first major starring role on the big screen), Altman would rebound the same way he spent the rest of his career: by never being pigeonholed or told what he can or can’t do.
Some auteurs of the 1970s were often reigned in once the blockbuster minded and decidedly more risk averse 1980s hit. Not Altman. Emboldened by the sometimes stagnating careers of his contemporaries, Altman never cared if his films were hits or flops or whether they were sprawling ensemble pieces (which he still remains best known for) or stripped down character studies with a minimal number of characters.
In the second part of our look back, we catch up with the idiosyncratic, but visionary career of a man who would continue marching to the beat of his own drum until his final film in 2006.
Saturday, August 23rd, 3:30pm
Returning to the psychological ambiguity of his earlier thrillers That Cold Day in the Park and Images, Altman curiously followed up Nashville with a western (the little loved and not included Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson) and this dramatic effort that feels a thousand steps back in grandeur, but a quantum leap forward in terms of style. It was still during Altman’s hottest part of his career, and the film was famously greenlit by Fox without a script because Altman insisted the film shouldn’t have one. A Southern California updating of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, this might be Alman’s most openly austere and beautiful to look at film, but the drama that arises between a pair of mismatched roommates (Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duvall) and their landlord (Janice Rule) amounts to one of the most notable films to feature an all women leading cast.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Saturday, August 23rd, 12:45pm
Sunday, August 24th, 1:30pm
His first theatrical release since the pillaring he took after Popeye is theatrical in a literal sense. A straight up adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s award winning Broadway play, Altman delivered a literal porting of the material. It also retained the heavy-hitting cast of the show’s most successful incarnation with Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, Kathy Bates and Cher returning to their roles in a story of a reunion of a James Dean fan club twenty years after the accident that killed the acting icon. Moving back and forth between the mid-70s and the mid-50s, it features Altman’s knack for getting to the heart of any material he tries to adapt by staying out of its way and paying more attention to actors and their theatricality. All the actors involved deliver some of the finest performances of their career, and this remains one of the rarest and most unsung films in the Altman canon. (It’s also being screened from a newly restored 35mm print, which is even more astounding since the film has never been available on DVD.)
But Five and Dime wasn’t the only stage to screen adaptation for Altman in the 80s, and it also features another great performance from one of the most underrated actors alive. Philip Baker Hall takes on the difficult role of disgraced former US president Richard Nixon in Secret Honor. What sets this apart from every other film Altman has done is that it only has one character. Based on the play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (who adapt their work for Altman here), the set up is pretty simple. Nixon is drinking some whiskey and talking into one of his now infamous tape recorders about anything and everything that’s been bothering him. Hall is electric and it’s baffling why he wasn’t given more leading roles in the wake of this project. Altman matches this electricity beat for beat by having Quebecois cinematographer Pierre Mignot glide effortlessly within the oval office setting with the grace of a ballerina. One man shows rarely look this good or come across as this cinematic and vital.
Vincent & Theo
Thursday, August 28th, 6:30pm
Like we stated before, no one told Robert Altman what he could and couldn’t do, but there was a time period when that led to him not being able to make most of the films he really wanted to make. If I’m being honest, I’m really not a fan of this period biopic that depicts the relationship between Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother Theo. Altman films aren’t always grand affairs, but this might be one of his weakest efforts on a critical level. It’s worth it for the brotherly bond between Tim Roth’s artist and the supportive Paul Rhys. It just isn’t particularly memorable, and Altman doesn’t really seem that invested with Julian Mitchell’s material. I’m really only writing this up to let you know it’s playing. I really don’t have much to say about it except that most of the films where Altman swung and failed at (and that aren’t included) are vastly more interesting than this blandly competent work.
Friday, August 29th, 6:30pm
Then came the film that would be the last major game changer in Altman’s career. After roughly a decade of being forced to duke it out on the margins of Hollywood comes this deliciously bitter, slyly funny, and at time unnervingly thrilling adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s tale of a shithead film studio executive (Tim Robbins, in what remains his best performance) being sent death threats by one of the writers he screwed over in his march to the top of the food chain. Boasting one of Altman’s most impressive casts and more inside baseball references that you could swing a film can at, this movie moves with the power of an exorcism. This was the perfect material for a then frustrated and increasingly pissed off Altman to sink his teeth into. It’s rabid, ribald, and raw in all the right ways. It’s actually my favourite film of his and there hasn’t been a tale of Tinseltown corruption and intrigue like this before or since.
Tuesday, August 26th, 6:30pm
After The Player proved to be an unexpected hit that revived Robert Altman’s career, he was finally able to finance a dream project that he’d chased for years. The film was Short Cuts, a multi-character tapestry in Los Angeles that not only recalled, but managed to match Nashville in scope and depth of feeling. However, this time Altman didn’t dare to try and create a satirical portrait of the state of America. No, instead his focus was finding the beauty of the mundane. Adapting a collection of stories by Raymond Carver (as well as a poem), Altman crisscrossed between the lives of over dozen characters in Los Angeles to explore how coincidence, chance, and accidents shape our lives. The stories are small, yet filled with more humor, drama, and emotion than most high drama. The cast is large, yet equal weight is given to stars as character actors (including Tim Robbins, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, Jack Lemmon, Tom Waits, Lily Tomlin, and so many more). It’s a film that seems to be about everything and nothing at the same time, which I suppose makes it one of the most accurate depictions of the human condition ever captured on film. Short Cuts is arguably Altman’s most impressive accomplishment, depending on whether you’ve seen it or Nashville most recently. (Phil Brown)
Saturday, August 30th, 7:00pm
Most filmmakers hit 75 on a beach somewhere remembering their career. When Robert Altman reached that age, he celebrated by making his last masterpiece. Gosford Park was a perfect career capper. It allowed him to deliver one final genre twist by taking on an Agatha Christie murder mystery. It also gave him one last spiraling cast with an upstairs/downstairs social dynamic to explore. And most importantly, the film allowed him to do something new: tell a distinctly English story featuring pretty much every great actor with a British accent who was alive at the time (including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Clive Owen, and Richard E. Grant). Some directors would have been intimidated by containing such sprawling cast and working with so many classically trained egos as an American outsider. Not Altman, he delivered one of the most controlled films of his career and drew some of the finest performances out of his cast for good measure. It’s a lark that plays like art. An airport mystery that turns into Rules Of The Game and then brings in Stephen Fry at the most dramatic moment to add exquisite comedy. Altman made a few more movies after Gosford Park, but he really didn’t have to. He proved that even in the twilight of his career, he could still make a film better than any of the young indie upstarts knocking him off and calling it homage. Everything after this is postscript. (Phil Brown)
Sunday, August 31st, 1:30pm
While Phil says the everything post-Gosford Park is a postscript, I would beg to differ. First it needs to be noted that between The Player and Gosford Park we skipped over a lot of movies. Some of them worthwhile (Cookie’s Fortune, the misunderstood Kansas City, the little loved or remarked upon The Gingerbread Men), some of them best left buried in deep dark graves from which they can never return (Prêt-à-Porter and Dr. T and the Women are both abjectly abysmal). That brings us to what I like to think of as his greatest late-late period achievement: a documentary styled and fictionalized look behind the scenes of Chicago’s world famous Joffrey Ballet. Essentially a love story between two people (James Franco playing a chef and a dancer played by Neve Campbell, who helped pen the story), the film also features a remarkable performance from Malcolm McDowell as a bitchy artistic director and really the only straight-up on screen Altman surrogate that has been seen in any of his films. This one has a deeply personal feel that a lot of the films at the end of his career lack. Many of his late period films found Altman simply resting on his laurels and showing off his craft. This one (and I would argue Cookie’s Fortune) are the only films that have a real personality and authorial stamp.
A Prairie Home Companion
Sunday, August 31st, 4:15pm
Let’s be honest, with the exception of maybe Popeye and The Gingerbread Man Robert Altman rarely made a film with the overall enjoyment of the audience foremost in mind. That was never his style. Altman was an artist and like most great artists he pleased himself before he pleased anyone else. If people liked it, great. If they didn’t, oh well. That’s why I always smile when I think about how Altman’s last film is this imperfect, but wildly entertaining ensemble adaptation of writer and humorist Garrison Keillor beloved (and still going) radio variety show. A show about a bygone, yet incredibly modern and changing era, there’s a lot here that would have allowed the cynicism of late period Altman to come through. And yet, there’s a sense that Altman smiled the entire way through this production. It seems effortless and the stacked cast (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan) all fill their roles perfectly. It’s a film where everyone seems to be having a good time. It’s celebratory and valedictory in all the best ways. It’s a man coming out from behind a curtain to take a final bow and thank everyone for sticking with him through the years. I’m sure Altman didn’t intend for this to be his last film, but it’s a perfect end to a rollercoaster career.